Oregon Children's Theatre Portland Oregon

Seismic issues shake up Keller Auditorium

Portland's 1917 performance hall can't withstand a major quake. What's next: Expensive upgrades or more expensive replacement of the hall?

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Keller Auditorium, with Keller Fountain in the foreground. Photo: Jason Quigley, www.photojq.com

Portland’s downtown Keller Auditorium, a home for large-scale arts and entertainment performances since 1917, is at a crossroads. The City and Metro are announcing on Friday that a seismic study done in 2020 concluded that the 2,992-seat theater is not built to withstand a major earthquake. The report, which you can see in full here, said the hall meets fire and safety standards, but also found that “guest amenities, backstage facilities, and mechanical and production systems are also outdated.”

What to do? Options range from significantly upgrading the building, which the report estimates would cost $119 million, to replacing it with a new performance hall, likely in a new and unspecified location, which the study estimates could cost $245 million. The City of Portland is allocating $200,000 from its spring 2022 budget “to evaluate options, work with partners and begin seeking community input.”

Any option would have a significant impact on performing groups and audiences, who flock to the theater to the tune of 400,000 times a a year. The Keller is the home space for Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera (both sometimes also perform in smaller venues), Broadway touring musicals, and many other productions, in addition to civic gatherings such as high school graduation ceremonies. It also plays another significant role, a City/Metro release says: The Keller provides about half of the revenue generated by the five theaters of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, helping to cover costs in the smaller theaters and make them more affordable.

The City and Metro say performances could continue through whatever construction plan is chosen, although that would require complex planning. “(R)enovation options that would put Broadway, opera, ballet, and independent performance productions out of commission for two years or more would harm Portland’5’s operational sustainability as well as severely stress the resident companies,” the City/Metro report says.

The City, Portland’5, and their consultants have come up with three possible options:

  • Building renovation “intended primarily to address structural deficiencies, but not other desirable functional and operational enhancements. This option generally preserves current configuration, amenities, and the internal and external appearance of the building.” This would take 1-2 years to complete, at a cost of about $119 million.
  • Renovation “intended to address structural deficiencies as well as strategic improvements to improve the patron and performer experience, meet current accessibility requirements, and meet audience amenity expectations. This option includes modest expansions of the building area at the front (west) and rear (east) and significantly updates the internal configuration and functionality as well as the external appearance. Accessibility, comfort, sightlines, and acoustics for patrons would be improved.” Estimated time: two years. Estimated cost: $215 million.
  • Complete replacement “with a new state-of-the-art facility. This option includes a conceptual ‘ideal’ space plan meeting current industry standards and patron expectations. This replacement facility could be built at an alternate location, ideally with a larger footprint than the current site, which would allow continued operation of the existing facility during construction; it could also be located on the current site, though the small footprint presents challenges.” Estimated time: 2.5 years. Estimated cost: $245 million, not including demolition costs.

Where the money for any of the alternatives would come from is a large and so far unanswered question. It would almost certainly require major private gifts, an all-out capital campaign, and some sort of governmental underwriting. In the meantime, Metro and the City say, performances will continue for the foreseeable future.

The Keller, while providing a large and in many ways comfortable performance space downtown, also plays “big,” sometimes dwarfing the shows onstage, and has significant acoustic problems. For many groups and audience members, a more intimate-feeling and technically adaptable space would be welcome. Portland’5 – which operates the Keller, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the Schnitzer’s three-theater neighbor that houses the Newmark, Dolores Winningstad, and Brunish theaters – took advantage of Covid shutdowns to significantly upgrade acoustics in the Schnitzer, which is home to the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and dance performances in the White Bird series.

The Keller is owned by the City of Portland, managed by Metro, and operated and booked by Portland’5.

Nothing can happen until money sources are found and a lot of necessary talking, planning, and negotiating is done. Next step: getting the conversations going.

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."
Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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